Newly released documents show an influential group that helps shape U.S. food policy, directs consumers toward food products, has financial ties to the world’s largest processed food companies, and has been controlled by former industry employees who worked for companies like Monsanto.
The documents reveal that the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has a record of bartering with a host of food giants, owns stock in highly processed food companies and has received millions of contributions from producers of pop, candy and processed foods linked to diabetes, heart disease, obesity and other health problems.
The findings are part of a recently peer-reviewed study that examined a collection of financial documents and internal communications obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
“It’s incredibly impressive, so if the Academy is corrupt, then US nutrition policy is corrupt,” said Gary Ruskin, executive director of US Right to Know and one of the study’s authors. The nonprofit investigative organization developed the study with researchers from nonprofit organizations and universities in the United States and the United Kingdom.
“If we are going to solve obesity and diabetes problems in the United States and elsewhere, we are going to have to address corruption in our health institutions,” Ruskin added.
The Academy says it is an independent voice and “a trusted educational resource for consumers.” She lobbies Congress and represents and provides information to more than 110,000 registered dietitians in the United States who help people make decisions about what foods to eat.
Although the Academy has long received criticism for its connection to the big food, the study reveals for the first time the depth of its financial ties.
The Academy accepted at least $15 million from institutional and institutional shareholders from 2011-2017, and more than $4.5 million in additional funding has gone to the Academy Foundation. Among the highest contributions have come from companies such as Nestle, PepsiCo, Hershey’s, Kellogg’s, General Mills, ConAgra, the National Dairy Board and infant formula producer Abbott Nutrition.
The academy and its foundation have also received funding from the food industry through sponsorships, which is effectively a good thing. In a 2015 email, an employee of the academy defined sponsorship as “when a company pays a fee to the academy/institution for specific rights and benefits that the academy/institution determines.”
The email reveals that in 2015 the Academy was in a sponsorship deal with Abbott and was discussing how the Academy could use the influence of dietitians in pediatricians’ offices to push Pediasure, one of the pharmaceutical giant’s infant nutritional products. Abbott at the time had a two-year, $300,000 sponsorship deal.
Records show that the Academy also owned Abbott stock at the time of the deal and plan. It also owns shares in the companies with which it has a sponsorship deal, PepsiCo, as well as financial shareholders, such as Nestle.
“This is amazing,” said Ruskin. “This belongs in the Hall of Fame for conflicts of interest — it’s off the charts.”
It seemed that the leadership of the academy at that time was very familiar with the optics.
“I personally love Pepsico and have no issues with us owning it, but I wonder if someone would say something about it,” Donna Martin, the Academy’s treasurer at the time, wrote in a 2014 email. “I hope they are as happy as they should be! I personally would be fine if we owned shares of Coca-Cola!!”
The 2015 email also described an extension of the sponsorship agreement with the National Dairy Council. Under the proposed extension, the National Dairy Council would pay $1.2 million for a package that would fund “support for both the Academy and the Foundation to continue collaborative work on food, nutrition, and agriculture.” Other sponsors listed in the email include the Coca-Cola Industrial Group and Conagra, which owns brands like Reddi-Wip, Slim Jim, and Banquet.
The Academy at the time of the 2015 email was also in discussion with Subway about how the Academy could “endorse” the fast food chain’s “healthier products,” the email shows, and discussed a partnership with the Mars Candy Bar Company.
Separately in 2015, a partnership between the Academy and Kraft sparked controversy when the Academy agreed to allow the company to put the “Kid’s Eat Healthy” seal on the packaging of Kraft Singles, indicating that an independent source had verified the nutritional value of the product.
But critics quickly pointed out that the product had poor nutritional value; It is not classified as a cheese by the federal government but as a “ready pasteurized cheese product”; It includes dyes and other chemicals. In the face of negative feedback, the Academy scrapped the character.
About $4.5 million in corporate funding from companies like General Mills has gone to an initiative called the “Champions Program,” which has given money to hundreds of nongovernmental organizations to support projects “promoting healthy eating and active lifestyles for children and their families.”
The Academy did not respond to specific questions from the Guardian, but directed it to respond to the study on its website. The study denied any wrongdoing, and said that the study contains factual errors, and said that the study takes its financial statements out of context. It said “strict” guidelines are in place to prevent companies from influencing its programmes.
The academy added that corporate financing constitutes only a small part of the revenues, and that an independent company manages its share portfolio.
“By their assumptions, omissions, and distortions, the report’s authors have caused serious harm to the Academy, our members, and the entire nutrition and dietetic profession,” the statement read.
The documents only came to light because Martin, a former academic president who works for a Georgia public school district, used her school email for academy business, meaning the communications were subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
The study also highlights the revolving door between the academy and the industry. Among its employees and board members are current and former public relations officers for companies representing big food, as well as consultants or employees for large food entities such as Monsanto, Sodexo, the Sugar Association, Bayer, the International Food Information Council, and the Industry Front group.
said Marion Nestle, a registered dietitian and public health advocate who wrote about the links in her 2002 book, Food Policy. She said the financial relationships raise “fundamental questions about credibility”.
“How can the Academy advise the public to avoid ultra-processed foods, for example, if it is funded by the makers of those foods?” she asked. “A matter of trust is critical to providing nutrition advice. The Academy appears to represent the food industry rather than the public interest.”